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Five Questions with Tania Farrelly

We are so rich in talent here on the surfcoast of Victoria, and we love celebrating our local authors with signings and blog features, particularly over the last eighteen months when events have been almost impossible. This month we spoke with Tania Farrelly about her historical novel The Eighth Wonder. We also have a limited number of signed copies of her book in stock, so be quick to snap one of these up!

Your debut novel The Eighth Wonder revolves around circuses and show business in nineteenth century New York, depicting both animals and people in the industry. Can you tell us a little bit about the world of your novel?

The Eighth Wonder is actually more about the metaphorical circus of the Gilded Age of New York at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a city of great brilliance – the richest and the poorest in the world. New York back then was THE crucible of world progress with the invention of electricity, international commerce and Edison’s moving pictures – but it was also a place of great brutality towards the poor; the immigrants of the Lower East Side and toward women and animals in general. This where the actual circus reference comes in. By 1897 PT Barnum’s legacy was flourishing across the country in the era of circus entertainment and in theme parks like Coney Island. But like all things in Gilded Age New York, all that glitters was not necessarily gold. The circus animals were treated cruelly to ensure they complied with the demands of proprietors. Ethan Salt, one of the main characters is an ex-circus man who voluntarily leaves the circus world to care for creatures abused by the circus industry. I based his character on a modern day saviour Lek Chailert who runs her own sanctuary in Thailand and who features in the documentary movie about the conditions of captive elephants in Asia today called Love and Bananas.

What was the inspiration for The Eighth Wonder? How did you first come upon the idea, particularly for one of your main characters Ethan Salt, and his elephant Daisy…

It was flickery images from Edison’s first movie machine in 1903, which captured my attention. They showed Topsy, a mistreated ex-circus elephant being put to her death via electrocution on a cold snowy January day at Coney Island. Poor old Topsy lifted her feet obediently on command for the copper soled death sandals to be strapped on, never knowing that soon 6000 Volts would pass through her body.

I was so saddened by the story I decided to write about the culture of New York in the Gilded Age through the eyes of a young female protagonist. I created the elephant called Daisy based on the life of Topsy. The more I investigated the treatment of animals and elephants in particular – the more I came to realise that similar abuse still happens today. So this story, I hope, brings contemporary relevance and highlights the need to take care of and conserve habitat for these sentient creatures.

The title of The Eighth Wonder came from the notion that back in the 1890’s anything that was considered an invention or an engineering marvel was touted as the The Eighth Wonder of the world. In my heroine’s case. She is on a mission to find her own ‘Eighth Wonder’.

Introduce us to your other protagonist, Rose Kingsbury Smith. Who is she, and who was she based on?

Rose Kingsbury Smith is a well-heeled young woman with ambition. She is an outsider in the ladies’ world of tea-parties and petit point needle-wielding society because she harbours a desire to become an architect like her father. As a child she is inspired by her hero Emily Roebling – the woman who helped engineer the famous Brooklyn Bridge to its completion in 1883. Rose is railroaded by her ambitious mother into a betrothal after the theft of a priceless family heirloom leaves their family on the brink of destitution and leaves Rose as her family’s most tradeable asset.

In researching the fictional character of Rose, I leant heavily on the legacy of Julia Morgan, a pioneering female architect. Julia hailed from San Francisco and was the first female ever to be admitted to the famous Ecole des Beaux Arts architecture school in Paris in 1898 after three attempts. Importantly, though, she didn’t fail any attempts! The first time she placed 42nd in a field of 376 but the school only accepted the top 30. The second time she placed in the top 30 but the school arbitrarily scaled her marks because they didn’t want to encourage women! Finally in 1898 she placed 13th and they had to accept her. She opened her own practice in 1904, having been working as a ‘draftsman’ until her boss, when waxing about her talents to a prospect, finished his pitch by saying ‘and the best thing is my draftsman is a woman and I barely need to pay her a thing!’

Julia worked till she was in her seventies becoming arguably, the most prolific architect of her generation having designed over 750 buildings. But the icing on the cake was the famous Hearst Castle in San Simeon California designed for newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.

Other ‘real women’ of history women play important cameos in the story too: Lillian Wald (Henry Street Settlement) and Florence Kelley (National Consumers League and National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People) both inspired movements to help less fortunate women rise above their situations to access better health, education, work conditions and independent futures.

What attracts you to historical fiction as a genre? As readers of historical fiction, it allows us to time travel, to experience lives so different to our own. Is it like that for you too, during the researching and writing process?

I’ve always loved historical fiction. It allows the curious mind to go on adventures to another time and place, learn about culture, educate, entertain and escape – all at the same time. I find it enriching brain food. And I hope that readers of this novel do too. I would like to think that historical fiction allows us to connect with the past in a way that makes us appreciate what has come before and helps us to improve or inspire what comes next. There are still so many untold stories about women who ignored the rules and just got on with things.

You mention in your acknowledgements that your writing career was launched through a masterclass you undertook in 2018. Can you talk about your writing journey? What valuable lessons did you learn in that course that have stayed with you?

My background is in advertising as a strategist and I have written many brand strategies and stories for big brands like Nike, Telstra, Visit Victoria and many destinations including Geelong, The Great Ocean Road, the Bellarine and the Pinot Coast. I felt that stories were simply in my blood. That being said, I have also learnt through thirty years in advertising that dealing with experts from the outset is the best way to get anything done. So I chose Fiona McIntosh’s 5 day Masterclass as my expert training ground and listened intently to Fiona’s counsel about historical fiction writing. On her advice, I ditched a nascent fantasy manuscript and got cracking on The Eighth Wonder the day after I finished her course. Then I went to New York to research it and eighteen months later, as a novice, unagented writer (and about a hundred drafts written and rewritten) I pitched the completed manuscript. After seventeen days, Penguin Random House gave me a YES. And now here I am working on my second novel for Penguin set against the backdrop of World War One. The most valuable lessons I believe – as dull is they may sound – are to do with being disciplined and listening to experts. Set your daily writing goal and do it. Everyday. Simply ” write it wrong- till you get it right.” Listen to the experts. Take their constructive criticism on board. And don’t show your draft manuscript to your friends (unless they are experts). They will be too kind to do you any good. I’m not saying its all that easy. (It’s not). But with discipline and the right advice – its doable.